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Several years ago someone told me that, in their opinion, religion exists because people were afraid of the dark, and they needed something to make them feel better.

At the time, I was marching toward a stronger sense of spiritual identity. To put it bluntly, I was becoming a “super Jew”. Not Orthodox, but very serious about what I believed about life, and how I wanted that to effect how I lived my own life.

This exchange was not meant to be a theological conversation between an atheist and a theist. It was meant to hurt my feelings, and it did. In fact, it worked so well that years later, I still think back on it.

Winter is coming

We know that Hanukkah is approaching because the Earth suddenly seems to change. The weather grows colder and colder. Trees which once were beautiful shades of brown and red suddenly become barren. For me, the sign of Hanukkah’s imminent arrival is earlier nights. By the time I finish my work day, it is pitch black. I go to an afternoon movie, only to find myself walking out of the theater in the middle of the night. It’s a strange feeling that something is being taken from you — that somehow the world is shifting and becoming bleaker. It’s like being in a play that you did not wish to act in.

Jews did not invent, nor do we have the monopoly on, candle lighting winter holidays. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia by lighting candles symbolizing the quest for truth. Several Asian cultures celebrate their New Year around this time (some a bit earlier, some later) through lighting of candles or burning bonfire-like structures. My favorite non-Jewish candle holiday is the Hindu celebration of Diwali, which reminds me of Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah mixed together. And of course, let’s not forget Christmas, filled with Christmas trees, houses covered in twinkling lights and sacred church candles. As the light of the world diminishes into winter, we find ourselves needing to create light.

As days grow shorter, we find celebration as a way to extend time into the realm of the sacred. We sanctify time so that we may capture it, own it, and experience it in ways beyond what the forces of nature place upon us. Hanukkah, for example, is not eight nights because it takes nearly a month to prepare for, and depending on your latke/sufganiyot indulgence, may take months to recover from! Hanukkah is not one week — it is the weeks of shopping, meal planning, party invites, fundraisers, and even house decorating leading up to it. As the days become shorter, Jews fight back by making time even more important than it already is.

Right, but for the wrong reason

Religion exists because people were afraid of the dark, and they needed something to make them feel better.

My acquaintance was right. Human beings do need religion because we are afraid of the dark, and because we want to feel better. It’s true, but for the wrong reason.

Religion is not about the fear of darkness. Religion is about the acknowledgement that we can make light.

We are not enslaved to the forces of nature: we have no excuse but to create a vibrant, bright, energetic world. We do not have to suffer in a universe of amoral, indifferent darkness. The winter reminds us that at any time of the year, we can be a light to one another. Where darkness is apathy, light is empathy. Where the cold nights remind us of those who shiver, our light reminds us of the warmth of human compassion. While the Earth sits in a state of frozen static, have the courage to move forward.

Celebrate not the darkness of the world, but rejoice in the light of our collective, spiritual potential. May it be God’s will.